INSIDE A TEEN'S MIND
I used to be a teen. Now as an adult who’s trained as a child & adolescent psychiatrist, I talk with teens all day in my Honolulu office. And I love my job. I consider myself lucky to have these smart and courageous, but often pained, young adults tell me their innermost thoughts and feelings.
Short of actually being them, or having the ability to read their minds, I think I have a pretty good idea of how many of them think and feel. At least the ones I’ve had the privilege of treating for hours on end. Over 20,000 hours since I first started.
We talk about their personal, family, or social struggles. We talk about their negative thoughts and feelings. We talk about how they view themselves. We talk about their identity in all its forms. We talk about how they relate to others.
A majority of the teens I treat say people (family, friends, classmates, other teens they’ve met via social media, and/or other adults) “misunderstand” them. And although their situations involve more biologic, familial, and societal complexity than just being misunderstood, I think it is important to try to comprehend exactly how they think and feel before trying to facilitate positive change in their lives.
Their personal stories are of course all confidential. But I’ve seen common themes in their experiences, thought processes, and feelings. And it’s these common themes I am compelled to share with the public for a number of reasons. First, to show how resilient they are in the face of adversity. Also, to reveal how negative and positive life experiences shape their emotional development and self-worth. In addition, I’d like to call attention to the possible impact of nurture on nature. Writing young adult fiction gives me these opportunities in a unique way.
Make no mistake, I do not pretend to know everything about teenagers. But I’ve worked with enough of them to understand how many of them cope with trauma or stress. Their brains can link thoughts and feelings to events, sometimes in ways that aren’t good for them. This can lead to self-destructive behavior.
Teens want to be understood. Heard. And if they are in emotional pain, they want to feel better. In my office, I help them gain personal insight with the goal of improving their emotional health. By writing young adult fiction, I hope to reach even more teenagers and perhaps, though indirectly, help them achieve this goal. I also hope to touch a wider audience of people of all ages, and maybe enlighten them on the inner workings of teens. Because how we interact with teens can mold them, for better or for worse.
SONIA PATEL, MD - WHY THIS CHILD & ADOLESCENT PSYCHIATRIST WRITES
We both watch the rain pepper the glass of the large window overlooking the east Honolulu mountains—this sixteen-year-old girl and me. We’re in my tiny office. She’s sitting on the black leather sofa across from me. And after many weeks of Friday appointments, she’s just revealed that her mother left her alone in the middle of Ala Moana when she was five. And never came back. The only other person who knows about this is her father. Fortunately, he’s been kind and attentive to her. Unfortunately, she’s been plagued with low moods and constant negative thoughts, including thoughts of wanting to die.
Many more weeks of therapy...
She begins to understand that underneath everything, she’s been blaming herself for her mother's abandonment. She assumed she wasn't good enough for her mother to stay.
She felt worthless.
And all these years, nothing has filled what feels like a giant void in her soul. She's tried many different things to fill the emptiness.
Drugs and alcohol.
These things have worked temporarily. Until her thoughts of being worthless surface again.
Weeks later still, she begins to comprehend the idea that maybe there is nothing wrong with her. Maybe it wasn’t her fault that her mother left. And that the giant void in her soul was her unresolved grief over her mother’s abandonment.
Next came weeks of learning to appropriately grieve her mother. Build her self-worth. Create a new identity. Make positive self-care decisions.
Learn to love herself as her mother should have loved her.
I am privileged to have the opportunity to guide teens through these kinds of self-discovery journeys. I began writing for many reasons, one of the most important being to perhaps reach out to other teens who struggle with difficult circumstances. Maybe my writing can touch their souls. Help them. Inspire them.
Maybe. Just maybe.